Do you remember that famous America’s Next Top Model episode where Tyra Banks was visibly angry at one of the competitors named Tiffany? Tiffany did not meet Banks’ expectations and according to Banks’ interpretation, she was not taking the competition seriously enough. The moment became a popular culture memory and event. Banks yells at Tiffany:
“I was rooting for you! We were all rooting for you!”
I didn’t particular enjoy the way Banks handled the situation. One’s interpretation of another’s emotions doesn’t amount to fact. But I think we’ve all at some point felt like Tyra Banks toward our very own Tiffany. Watching that now (in)famous clip of Matt Damon whitesplaining diversity to Effie Brown stirred that sort of reaction in me, albeit with less fervor:
“I was rooting for you Matt Damon. We were all rooting for you!”
I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a more likeable (white) actor than Matt Damon in Hollywood. While some may disagree, I find him to be good at his job(s), an intelligent person, a socially aware individual, and from friends of friends who have interacted with him personally, I have heard he is as likeable off the camera as he (usually) is when the cameras are on.
That said, Matt Damon also wears many identities of a privileged person. In fact, he could be a poster child for privilege: white, male, American, a celebrity, and wealthy. The first two identities alone are enough for me to (not) hold my breath when one who sees the world from those perspectives, and divulges into sentiments of something as delicate as diversity.
The clip was enough for me to ask, Et tu, Matt Damon? Partially because between Mark Wahlberg and his history of racist shenanigans, the Ben Affleck-Louis Henry Gates, Jr. debacle, and my general disdain for Boston sports teams – it’s getting harder to root for any Boston boys!
But also partially because it was yet another time I, as a black (African) person living in the United States, would have to reconsider and navigate how I interact with a popular culture that engages in sometimes subtle and sometimes blatant racism (or lack of diversity).
Still, context is key. So I decided to watch the Project Greenlight episode in its entirety to get a better understanding of what was taking place in the setting, and the communications that led to that (not so) eye-opening moment. When you watch the episode in its entirety, it all makes sense. But I’ll come back to that.
My Master’s degree is in Multicultural and Organizational Communication, of which I devoted my time and attention to Multiculturalism theories and concepts, especially race. But the full experience qualifies me as a diversity trainer in the organizational realm. And in all likelihood if I didn’t decide to take the route of academia and public writing – I would probably be in diversity training/consulting in some capacity.
I realized while in my program just how difficult racism (and all isms) are to overcome, and diversity and inclusion is to achieve in any capacity. Not just in the practical everyday sense where ordinary individuals don’t pay attention to their subconscious beliefs which ultimately manifest into words and actions. But even in individuals who have committed to learning about diversity and implementing structural changes – some, many, could still not see past their whiteness or acceptance of whiteness.
My classmates of color and the very few white classmates who just got it would roll our eyes as we wondered how and why people could be in such a program and still not get it. But that was the reality – and it is testament to a few realities. One reality is that people do not want to see what they do not want to see. And racial inequality is something many white Americans simply do not want to see. So they would rather pretend it doesn’t exist or find a way to lessen its effects.
Another reality is that for all the accusations of being very liberal (which is wrongly synonymous with being pro-racial equity), and supposed commitments to diversity – academia – like every other institution in this country is not only racist, but far from diverse, and especially at the top.
Apply to Hollywood and specifically to Matt Damon’s confirming statement: “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”
To reiterate Effie Brown’s reaction: “Wow. Okay.”
Many people often think having one person of color (or any historically marginalized identity) to “represent” in any capacity, is the answer to diversity. And when you inform them that it’s not, it is often met with, “It’s better than nothing.” As if the only choices are to have one or a few representatives, or none at all.
Aside from the consequence of taking such an attitude to diversity often resulting in the person or people “representing” being nothing more than tokens, anyone who is committed to diversity knows that it is not solely about portraying representation. And where representation matters, it matters at every level.
The above is often misunderstood by the Matt Damons and other white decision-makers of the world in any professional capacity. Hiring one or two employees to showcase your diversity doesn’t make you diverse. How your company practices diversity from the top to the lowest levels in its representations, decisions, portrayals, goals, training, and ultimately how it approaches what it does – is what makes you diverse.
Diversity is a deliberate affair. And especially so in the professional context. It doesn’t occur naturally. And in an unequal environment, it certainly doesn’t occur through merit. Merit and meritocracy wrongly assume an equality in access which simply is not true. But meritocracy is a myth that is difficult to end because it exists in the very imagination of what it means to be American.
In racialized spaces such as the United States, and by extension, the consequences of the organizations that are in the nation, diversity must involve measures and efforts that are centered in including communities (and perspectives) that one does not interact with personally.
Because the personal is intrinsically related to how one approaches their professional world. That is to say, the reality of people hiring people who look like them, the ignorance of communication differences across communities, the covert racism of skipping over a non-white sounding name on an application, etc. I could go on because the examples are indeed endless.
It’s important to note that Effie Brown being in the room and her presence in the room doesn’t necessarily make her an expert on diversity. And she shouldn’t be tokenized in that way. But her experience as a successful producer who is intentional in her representation of marginalized identities does make her an expert. And so does her understanding of the experiences of being a black woman in the industry.
But I doubt there is a black woman or person of color in general, who engages in white spaces, who has not had something whitesplained to them; I doubt this is a rare occurrence. Her being the only person who is explicitly concerned with racial diversity and representation is disappointing but not at all surprising.
Specifically in this context of Effie Brown – the only black woman in the room – explaining the implications of the potential of the only black woman in a film playing a role as a prostitute, and the representative and political implications of this, is ignored until she points it out. This is the consequence of a lack of authentic commitment to understanding diversity and inclusion in one’s field.
This is despite the fact that there has historically been, and there continues to be problematic stereotypical portrayals of Black women in film because of outright racism and sexism, ignorance, and a lack of understanding of the implications of text and media. The incident is really just a micro example of larger constructs that are ever-present in the country. Neither Hollywood nor Matt Damon is unique and special in this way.
Diversity, to many decision-makers is often an afterthought, as is portrayed in the documentary. Which is of course, the fundamental problem. If you do not begin from the position of considering diversity (or lack thereof) and its implications, and are then tasked with it because someone or many someones point out its nonexistence, it then becomes an imposition. And oftentimes such impositions lead to quick fixes – such as tokens – that not only do not solve the problem of (a lack of) diversity, but have the capacity to exacerbate it.
For what it’s worth, I am still rooting for Matt Damon. In the same way that I’m rooting for the nation, and for that matter, the world. Because if we don’t believe people can learn to be more inclusive, to alter their perspectives of diversity and inclusion in a way that achieves true racial equality if we educate and train, then what would be the point of working for progress?
Of course progress cannot come quickly enough for those who were formerly and are presently disenfranchised. So while we educate the Matt Damons of the world, let us not forget the work many of us need to do in our own professional and personal lives. Because diversity is difficult but it is not impossible.